Spring is slowly approaching, the buds are swelling on the trees, and the days get long enough for me to walk back in the light most of the time. Just to remind us it’s still winter though, nature every so often dumps snow on Mid-Coast Maine in 1-2 foot increments. Perfect logging conditions if you’re a 6’ 4” giant like Jeff. Not so much for myself.
There are so many subtleties to driving horses, it’s so hard to figure out where to begin describing what you are doing; especially because there is waist deep snow and we’re logging. In so many words, however, I agree with Jeff’s suggestion that it may be much easier to learn to drive horses whilst logging in the winter because you can establish a rapport with the horses and driving them. Thus when the time comes to have to drive them in straight lines when plowing, mounding rows, seeding, cultivating (weeding), and spreading manure, it will be a piece of mud pie. The downside is that you really are being thrown into working the horses and occasionally being dragged through deep snow. It may seem obvious but this method requires a steep learning curve.
Fortunately for both the horses and I, my comfort level with them and giving commands with voice and lines is growing steadily. In any case, the following is my attempt to give everyone an idea of what driving horses is like as a beginner. Class, put on your thinking caps and try to imagine with me… It’s anywhere from 20-35 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the unbroken snow stands about 2 and half feet high. Consequently you have 2 or 3 pairs of socks on, a pair of long johns or two, several layers that you may or may not peel off up top, and of course a warm hat. Your heavy winter boots protect you from the cold, hoofs, axes, saws, and stumps. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, you carry several pairs of gloves with you: a warm pair of work gloves for cutting trees and moving objects, a pair of gloves with rubber grips so that you can get a grip on the cold, snowy lines (reins), and probably a thinner pair of gloves underneath for extra warmth.
As you drive the horses, you use a combination of voice commands and the lines. In order to get the horses moving you use anything from “giddup” to “comeup” or even a kissing sound. To stop you say “whoa.” A sharp left is “haw” while right is “gee.” If you have to back up some, you say…drum roll…“back.” There are other, more complex, commands, but these are the basics. There is not need to yell, but you should be using a confident, calm tone similar to how a good dog owner commands their dog.
Most of your steering is done using the lines, but you aren’t just using your arms to jerk the lines around. While you are walking directly behind the horses about 8 feet back, you are trying to maintain “perfect tension.” If you hold back on the lines too much the horses will respond by slowing or stopping; if the lines are slack, you do not have control and the horses will either quickly become confused or stop. Keep in mind the horses are connected to the lines by bits, which are bars or chains placed in their mouth so that they are very sensitive to your line pressure. Now imagine trying to do all this under the conditions I described in the paragraph above. That’s what we be doing for anywhere from 3 to 7 hours a day 4 days a week except you’re also hitching 20-50 foot logs by chain to an “evener” connected to the pair of horses, called a team, to a log yard about a tenth of a mile down the trail. In between you might be cutting down trees and completing all the associated procedures.
I will say this though, I love horse logging the more I improve at it. The sense of accomplishment of hauling this tree with the help of these beautiful animals is exhaustingly spiritual. My respect for the horses as individuals with personalities is manifest in the way I talk to them, pet them, praise them, and drive them. The fact that they can make a job that would take several humans much longer to complete look so effortless is extremely humbling. I’ll admit that for the first week or so I was nervous, anxious, and even dreading working with the horses because it is a grind and requires enormous patience. At the end of the day, your body feels worn, your lungs are sucking in the cold air with reckless abandon, and your hands, arms, and legs are burning from holding the lines, moving logs, and handling chains. Additionally your legs and feet are wet from the snow melting and absorbing into your pants/long johns and then your pants freeze so that you have shin guards for jeans. But boy, oh boy, is it fun and it does get easier.
So there it is, being a gentleman to the horses (goooood horses), and hustling and straining to hop over moving logs (grunt); a gentle badass. Are you man or woman enough to be a horse logger? If a 12-year-old boy can do it (and yes we have a 12 year old who technically owns one of the horses doing this about once a week), then you can. Plus, you can then eat as much peanut butter with carrots, squash, bacon, and eggs as you want and not get fat, which is pretty much what I’ve been running on as staples. However, not all together although they might actually be good combined now that I think about it…
“If there is a God, it made peanut butter and jelly.” - Myself